PHOENIX — The Diamondbacks’ first look at Aaron Hill opened their eyes, and their second looked opened their pocketbook.
The D-backs signed Hill to a three-year, $35 million contract extension Friday, enabling them to not only avoid free agency with Hill after this season but also finish locking up most of their key position players for the foreseeable future.
Hill, Miguel Montero, Martin Prado and Cody Ross are under contract for at least the next three years, and the D-backs also have control of Paul Goldschmidt, Adam Eaton and shortstop prospect Didi Gregorius for at least the next four.
Hill has been an integral piece in Arizona since being acquired with John McDonald from Toronto in exchange for Kelly Johnson in August 2011, and the D-backs knew it almost immediately.
“I don’t know if we win the NL West (in 2011) without him,” D-backs general manager Kevin Towers said. “(But) that was a short sample size. To be able to watch what he could do over a full season last year was truly remarkable. Not only offensively, defensively. Came up with big defensive plays, big hits for us.
“It’s not just the skill set or the talent level. He is the type of guy we want wearing a Diamondbacks uniform. He plays with a quiet confidence. When the game is on the line, I like to see Aaron Hill up to the plate.”
Hill, 30, won an NL Silver Slugger Award last season, when he had a career-high 76 extra-base hits in his first full season with the D-backs. He is to make $5.5 million this year, the final year of his contract he signed before last season, and will earn $11 million in 2014, $12 million in 2015 and $12 million in 2016.
Hill became the second player in major league history to hit for the cycle twice in the same season last year, when he hit .302 with 44 doubles, 26 home runs and 85 RBIs. His batting average and .882 OPS were career highs.
With production like that, the D-backs could consider dropping him down one spot to No. 3 in the batting order, Justin Upton’s old spot, as they remodel their lineup with newcomers and on-base guys Adam Eaton and Marin Prado also a good fit for the top of the order.
Hill said at the end of last season that the proximity to his extended family – he and his wife are from Visalia, Calif. – made 2012 especially enjoyable, and it was one of the reasons he did not consider playing out his contract and testing the market next winter.
“I know a lot of guys, obviously that is a big part of today’s game, testing the free market. It’s very exciting. But for me, I’m in a place I’m in love with. My family is happy. Love the guys (teammates). So when it comes to something like that, when you are comfortable in a certain spot, I didn’t think twice about it,” Hill said.
Said Towers: “We’re very fortunate he gave up the opportunity to test free agency after the year and a half he had with us. We’re a better ball club today and in the future for having him. No better guy.”
Hill embodies the intangibles around which Towers likes to build a team. He is one of the first to the ballpark, one of the last to leave. A week before the D-backs played a doubleheader at Chase Field against Miami last August, Hill was lobbying manager Kirk Gibson to play both.
“Not that we’re trying to clone people like Aaron Hill, but if you were to ask me would I take 25 of them, absolutely,” Towers said.
“The way he plays each and every game, both defensively and offensively. If he is having a bad day at the plate, he doesn’t let it affect his defense. He’s a team player. He does the little things you look for. He gives himself up to advance a runner or get a runner in. He possesses all those intangibles you look for in a winning-type ballplayer.”
The D-backs also talked about an extension for Goldschmidt, another of the kind of player they’d like to build around, but the Goldschmidt camp apparently would rather play out this season, let the numbers fall where they may and then talk about a long-term deal next winter.
Ian Kennedy, another candidate for an extension, appears to be in the same boat as Goldschmidt. Kennedy has two more years of arbitration eligibility before he could become a free agent, and his agent, Scott Boras, rarely agrees a deal that preempts free-agent years.